Raging Grace: social issue drama blends with gothic horror thrills in this chilling debut

Director Paris Zarcilla builds an acute sense of entrapment in the story of a Filipina single mother working in a sinister British family mansion.

19 December 2023

By Kim Newman

Max Eigenmann as Joy in Raging Grace (2023)
Sight and Sound

British employer-exploiters don’t think to ask about the professional qualifications of women hired for menial jobs. And so, in Raging Grace, it is deftly established – but never raised in the dialogue – that resourceful immigrant Joy (Maxene Eigenmann) has enough medical experience to sense a big truth. She realises Nigel (David Hayman), with whose care she is casually entrusted, is being kept in a chemically-induced coma by his niece (Leanne Best).  

She takes it upon herself to withhold the meds and waken the invalid, only for the old man to launch a charm offensive on Joy’s daughter Grace who, unbeknownst to her employer Katherine, is also living in the house. A hidden stash of unsent letters in Tagalog – which the writer presumes were posted – and a strange discovery in the attic hint that Nigel had connections with Joy’s homeland before he became ill, making Paris Zarcilla’s film an impressive combination of acute contemporary issue drama with traditional gothic.  

Jaeden Paige Boadilla and Leanne Best as Grace and Katherine in Raging Grace (2023)

Raging Grace incorporates a wealth of classic mystery elements familiar from Jane Eyre, The Woman in White or Bluebeard: significant sleepwalking, forced confinement of an inconvenient female relative in a madhouse, poison administered drop by drop (in parallel with Grace’s favourite prank of putting strawberry jam in the ketchup), and dreams which might be real competing with troubling realities written off as tall tales. Even some social-realistic elements – Grace has to sleep in a wardrobe so Joy can keep her job and a roof over their heads – would be an easy fit for 19th century melodrama.  

For the most part, Raging Grace stays with four characters in an old dark house – one is in a coma for the first act and another absent for a long stretch. Zarcilla builds a sense of entrapment, with the infallible suspense device of characters in hiding who find their bolt-holes more dangerous than the outside world they’ve fled. Eigenmann, looking down and forgetting not to call her employer ‘ma’am’, and Boadilla, pixie-ish with a streak of infuriating mischief, are exceptional as the unusual heroines in this labyrinth – but of course the pleasure of the gothic is bound up in presentations of ambiguous evil.

Given that it would obviously be wasteful to cast the reliable Hayman in a sleeping part, it’s no surprise that comatose Nigel eventually comes round and presumptions of who’s wickedly plotting against who are turned over. From his bed, Nigel exerts a reptilian menace; a speech about cock-fighting, which Nigel enjoyed as a boy in the Philippines, provides a queasy moment. The film has a genuine chill as this old colonial monster sets out to exacerbate a rift between mother and daughter. 

 ► Raging Grace arrives in UK cinemas on 29 December. 

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